4 March 2014

Agota Kristof: Le Grand cahier | The Big Notebook (1986)

Agota Kristof (1935–2011) was born in Hungary but left the country with the Soviet invasion of 1956 to spend her life in French-speaking Switzerland, where she came to write her 'Trilogie des jumeaux' ('Twins Trilogy') in French some years later. This consists of Le Grand cahier (The Big Notebook) (1986), La Preuve (The Proof) (1988), and Le Troisième mensonge (The Third Lie) (1991) and is largely fictional: Kristof was a tomboy, although her brother was not a twin but a year older than her, for instance.

Le Grand cahier is written entirely in the first person plural, the twins being the narrator(s), considered as one entity. They mention no specific date, country or geographical feature, and in fact no names of characters can tie the book to any particular place: the people are named according to their position in the family, and non-family are named either according to their profession or just given a nickname. However, it's probably reasonable to assume that the first invading country is based on Germany, and toward the end Russia emerges.

The twins are sent from the Big Town, where the war is increasingly worrying people, to the quieter Little Town to live with their maternal grandmother. As it's ten years since Mother went to see Grandmother (who poisoned Grandfather), the twins weren't born at the time; but they quickly discover that this old woman (nicknamed 'La Sorcière' ('The Witch') by townfolk) is egotistical and filthy, never takes a wash and smells very bad, and the boys have to find their way around the many problems this throws up, such as the fact that in the beginning Grandmother sells the twins' belongings and pockets the money that Mother periodically sends.

Time and again, the book shows the child as father of the man, and the twins have an intelligence that greatly transcends that of any adult in the book, a fact which is highly useful in a wartime context when everything – money especially – is scarce. They soon learn how to manipulate, to double guess, to steal when necessary, and to plan with great skill and dexterity, although – having learned earlier on that war breeds greed and egotism – they are content to get by by living on only what is necessary for survival, and go out of their way to help people who are in grave need of assistance.

To survive they develop a series of strategies, such as the 'toughening' one (which strongly reminded me of the Doubles game played by African Americans); they educate themselves way beyond the level of schooling for for their age; and they are always eager to discover new things about everything, such as learning different languages with great facility. They become fearless, unshockable, and to a certain extent (but only at times) frighteningly callous.

Above all, this book is a criticism of war. In the drinking den where the twins sing, a woman who criticises men's attitude is told she has seen nothing of war, but she replies:

'Seen nothing? Twat! We have all the work, all the worries: the children to feed, the wounded to look after. As soon as the war's over, you will all be heroes. Dead: heroes. Survivors: heroes. Invalids: heroes. That's why you, the men, invented war. It's your war. You wanted it, so get on with it. Heroes my ass!' (My translation.)

War poisons everyone: this is a lovely female take on soldier boys and their gruesome toys. The book-within-a-book is in fact this notebook they're writing, and although they say it should be entirely objective and very realistic, very often it takes on a rather surrealistic tone.

Depressingly, 'l'affaire Abbeville' came in 2000 when a number of parents – twenty-first century French spiritual descendants of the dreaded Mrs Grundy – complained vociferously that Le Grand cahier was being taught at a French school. The kind of thing that offended them was: the young pubescent Bec-de-Lièvre (Harelip) encouraging the twins' dog to have sex with her; the parish priest paying her to see (and sometimes put his finger in) her 'fente' ('crack'); the priest's servant sucking the twins' cocks and bringing herself off as they suck her nipples; the foreign officer having the twins fiercely whip his back and piss on his face; and Bec-de-Lièvre literally being, as her mother put it, 'baisée à mort' ('fucked to death') by twelve or fifteen soldiers. Police officers actually broke up one of the schoolteacher's lessons to arrest him for teaching a 'pornographic' book, although sanity prevailed in the end and a number of literary people (who of course knew what they were talking about) defended the novel.

This book is fascinating and I couldn't put it down until I'd finished it. It's not just war that Agota Kristof aims at, but religion, the family, hypocrisy and lying in general, the education system, sentimentalism, etc. Great stuff.

My other posts on Agota Kristof:

Agota Kristof: La Preuve | The Proof
Agota Kristof: Le Troisième mensonge |The Third Lie
Agota Kristof: C'est égal: nouvelles

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